All You Need Is Hay

hay bales

hay bales

This is the time of year when gardeners may be looking for ways to keep busy. Yet although most plants will not do any significant growing for the next two months at least, there is at least one task that, if done now, could make the new growth on your plants next spring more healthy and productive than ever before.
This single task, so simple that anyone from 3 to 93 can assist in its performance, is to mulch the entire garden with hay or straw. Well, toddlers and nonagenarians may not be able to personally schlep bales of hay from their local Red Barn or other animal supply store, yet they should be able to participate in the hay’s distribution once it has arrived in the garden.
A thick layer of hay or straw mulch that you put on the soil surface in December will start to decompose during the next several months, leaving the soil invigorated for spring growth. Mulch may be placed around all trees, shrubs, roses and perennials, as well as on bare soil or planters where you intend to plant flower or vegetable seeds next year. As the hay decomposes, it will soften the upper few inches of soil, making it fluffier and easier to work. The lighter soil benefits plants because it encourages the formation of humus and the growth of beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizae, organisms that assist plants in taking up minerals and in resisting pests and diseases.
Any mention of mulch must include an encomium to Ruth Stout, author of several books such as “Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent” (Lyons Press). It would be safe to say that Stout, more than any other individual, made “mulch” a household word in this country.
Stout did just one thing: She mulched and mulched and mulched some more. Over time, fertilization and watering became infrequent events in Stout’s garden. She built no compost piles because her soil achieved softness on its own, through breakdown of the ubiquitous hay, that made soil amendments such as compost no longer necessary. Starting with an 8-inch layer (that’s right, 8 inches) of hay in her garden beds, she claimed that after heavy mulching for several years, weeds and pests were eliminated and the soil had become so soft that she could throw away her shovel and her spade. Thousands came to visit Stout’s Connecticut garden and thousands more crowded to hear her speak as she spread the word about mulch throughout the United States.
Aside from mulching, one of the cultural practices recommended this time of year is dormant spraying of peach trees to prevent an outbreak of peach leaf curl next spring. It is considered mandatory to spray with a lime-sulfur concoction once all the leaves of your peach tree have fallen, and to use this same spray once again in the spring just as peach buds are about to open.
Although I have not personally mulched in the manner of Ruth Stout, I cannot help wondering if such a practice could lessen the occurrence of peach leaf curl. It would certainly be worth a try since I have seen peach leaf curl develop even where the recommended spraying procedures have been used.
It is interesting to hear what Stout told a visitor who complained about black spot fungus on roses. “I told her I never sprayed my roses,” Stout wrote, “and that I had some black leaf spot, but no more than any roses I had ever seen which were conscientiously sprayed. I had given up spraying from discouragement and distaste for the job and had continued the practice of no spraying from just every day common sense. If the spraying didn’t do what it was supposed to do, what was the purpose of my antics?”
TIP OF THE WEEK: Many deciduous trees and shrubs, from crepe myrtle to rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), can be propagated by hardwood cuttings. As soon as a deciduous plant loses its leaves in fall or winter, detach shoots that developed during the previous growing season. Cut these shoots into 8-inch pieces. Make a diagonal slant at the top of each shoot and a horizontal cut across the bottom to avoid confusion about which end to insert into the rooting medium. Dip all cuttings in hormone rooting powder, a product carried by most nurseries. Insert the cuttings so that only one quarter of their length protrudes above the rooting medium, which should be extremely well-drained.

Photo credit: swainboat / / CC BY-NC-SA

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